KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When Teal Bunbury was scuffling this summer, searching for some sort of spark to get his season back on track, he sought the advice of someone with whom he knew he could relate.
Someone who had been through the wringer as a professional goalscorer. Someone who knew what it was like to deal with high expectations and not always deliver.
That someone just happened to be his father, Alex, a former Kansas City forward himself.
“It’s reassuring to know that you’re not the only person out there that it happens to you before,” the junior Bunbury said. “Having someone very close to you that can give you advice and a shoulder to lean on is great.”
And make no mistake, there were times this summer when Bunbury needed a sounding board.
He went scoreless in league play for more than three months, bouncing in and out of Peter Vermes’ starting XI in the process. Needless to say, it was a trying time for the player many had already identified as the next great American striking talent and who had set an ambitious target of 15 goals for his second professional season.
But two or three times every week – through the struggles and the eventual uptick that’s brought the 21-year-old’s production to seven goals and three assists this season – Bunbury heard his father’s voice on the other end of the phone line pointing out areas for improvement, giving a gentle reminder or providing praise for a job well done.
After all, who better to counsel a gifted son than the father who’d already made the same journey himself?
“When there were those games when I wasn’t scoring, he was just making sure I understood that players go through that,” Bunbury said. “He was just saying, ‘I’m glad you’re going through it now so you can understand that, learn from it and move on.’”
To his credit, Teal Bunbury has managed to do all three of those things. Even when the goals dried up after a promising start that included a spectacular brace in Vancouver, Vermes never stopped raving about the young striker’s attitude and dedication on the training field.
Talent was never Bunbury’s problem, and, eventually, his efforts away from the spotlight began paying off.
He broke his drought with a last-gasp, game-tying goal against New England on “Teal Bunbury Bobblehead Night” at the end of July, following that up a few days later with a goal against Real Salt Lake. Then he dropped his second brace of the season on Houston nine days ago.
That resurgence landed him back in Kansas City’s starting lineup, for now at least, and prompted Jurgen Klinsmann to call him into the most recent national team camp, though he didn’t dress against Costa Rica or travel to Belgium.
“I’ve learned a lot from the opportunities [the coaching staff] has given me to kind of figure it out for myself in training and in games,” he said. “All in all, I feel like my progression from last year to this year has been steady. There might have been some bumps in the road, but, as of right now, I’m feeling really good.”
Bunbury has certainly moved on as well, making it well known that he’d prefer not to rehash this season’s struggles when there are much more important topics at hand, specifically Sporting Kansas City’s efforts to make the playoffs.
“Things happen,” he said. “Like I’ve been saying, I’m over it and talking about it. I know people want to know about it, but I feel like I’ve been playing well recently.”
Perhaps channeling his father, Bunbury said he also understands his work is far from over, a lesson learned during recent lean times. He credits his upbringing – as well as his faith – for the sense of purpose and the self-confidence needed to deal with and bounce back from his first real adversity as a professional.
“Our parents were always very much into our lives, very supportive and very encouraging,” he said. “With whatever we did, they always thought that we were the best at it. It was always, ‘Whatever you put your mind to, you’ll be able to do.’”
As Bunbury’s learned this season, that journey won’t always be smooth sailing. Fortunately, he has a father with firsthand experience ready to remind him of that.